The NBA relaunched its coronavirus-hit season on Thursday, with players taking a knee during the US national anthem in a show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Four months after the league shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA is restarting its season with 22 teams based inside a secure “bubble” at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
The unprecedented NBA experiment began on Thursday with the Utah Jazz defeating the New Orleans Pelicans 106-104 in an empty arena at the resort’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
The first and last points of the game were scored by Utah’s Rudy Gobert — the Frenchman whose COVID-19 case triggered the NBA’s shutdown in March.
LeBron James then led the Los Angeles Lakers to a pulsating 103-101 defeat of the Los Angeles Clippers in the day’s second game.
Both games started with players — wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter” — kneeling in unison as the “Star-Spangled Banner” played.
“It’s an opportunity to use this platform to spread a lot of positives, a lot of love throughout the course of the whole world,” Lakers star James said afterwards.
“We understand what’s going on in society right now and we’re using this NBA platform as players as coaches and as an organization to stand strong on that. This is a good start.”
The players’ activism followed weeks of soul-searching about racism and police brutality in the United States following the death of unarmed black man George Floyd during his arrest by police on May 25 in Minneapolis.
Many NBA players joined protests against the killing which swept across all 50 states in June, and the cause of social justice has loomed large ahead of the league’s restart.
Large “Black Lives Matter” slogans have been written on each court, while players are allowed to wear jerseys adorned with messages ranging from “I Can’t Breathe” to “Justice Now” and “Education Reform.”
Taking a knee has become an emblematic way of showing solidarity with anti-racism campaigners, adopted by athletes around the world in the months since Floyd’s death.
Kneeling during the US national anthem was first started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016.
Kaepernick used the gesture to draw attention to racial injustice but was widely vilified for his stance and has not played in the NFL since being released by San Francisco in early 2017.
James meanwhile said there would be no let up in player activism.
“We’re dealing with a lot of racism, a lot of social injustice and police brutality … It’s something that we want to have people’s ears open to. We have ears open now, but we cannot stop,” James said.
“We’ll keep our foot on the gas as we’ve been doing over the past two months.”
The NBA had had a longstanding rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem before games.
“We’ve had a rule in place for a long time that requires players to stand,” Silver told CNN. “I will say though that I do respect peaceful protest. We’ll see what happens if (they kneel).
“But I understand this is a unique moment in our history.”
The NBA is relaunching its season with 22 teams based in a secure zone at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex inside the sprawling Disney World resort.
Utah’s game against New Orleans will be followed later Thursday by a heavyweight showdown between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers.
Thursday’s games marked a resumption of regular season play to determine the final line-up for the NBA playoffs, which start on August 17.
Utah’s Rudy Gobert — the first NBA player to be infected with COVID-19 whose case triggered the league’s shutdown — was back in the line-up for the Jazz on Thursday.
The tightly-controlled “bubble” setting in Orlando is designed to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 halting play once more.
Players in the bubble are required to undergo regular COVID-19 testing and the ability to enter and exit the secure zone is subject to stringent regulations.
Team and NBA personnel are staying in three hotels dotted throughout the resort, with a small number of media, sponsors and inactive players also allowed in.